Why Black Superheroes Succeed - and Fail

Would Spider-Man be the box-office juggernaut he is today if he had been created as an African-American character?

What if Peter Parker — Spidey's angst-ridden alter ego — had had to deal with the problems of being black in America in addition to adjusting to his powers when he was first introduced in 1962?

With the release of Spider-Man 2 — the much-anticipated sequel to the 2002 summer blockbuster — the friendly neighborhood Web Slinger seems to be more popular than ever. Spider-Man's enduring appeal can be attributed to many things: his arachnid abilities, his cool costume, his wisecracking antics during heated battles with villains, or the tragic irony of his character — that despite his superhero status, he cannot protect his loved ones.

But when Spider-Man debuted in Marvel Comics, the United States was divided along color lines. The civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were leading issues of the day.

As explosive and divisive the civil rights movement was — and still is — readers may not have been so receptive to a wisecracking, butt-kicking African-American in a spider suit.

"It's an interesting question, it's tough to say because often characters of a product of their times and good timing. Certainly, he would have had to had dealt with a different set of problems," said Joe Quesada, Marvel editor-in-chief.

"On a consumer level, I don't know have the demographics from that time, but I would venture to say that maybe 99 percent of our readers were white maybe?" he said. "And then you have a question of whether the consumer would have been ready to accept the character. Would they have been as receptive to Spider-Man if he had been drawn black? I don't know. Given what I know about the times, perhaps not. One of the beautifully universal things about Spider-Man is that the character wears a full mask. Anyone could be under that costume."

Introducing Blokhedz

In recent months, fans have been receptive to a new comic book and black superhero who is, in many ways, more anxiety-ridden than Peter Parker.

Last December, the hip-hop-themed Blokhedz — an independent comic book that focuses on an aspiring teen rap artist named Blak and his struggles with inner-city life and the slaying of his older brother — debuted and has steadily gained a word-of-mouth following. Blak has a supernatural ability to control others with his raps and rhymes that he apparently acquires after being slashed by a cursed knife during a skirmish with gang members.

Unlike other superheroes, Blak — and others characters in Blokhedz — do not wear capes, costumes or masks. Blak is as normal — powers aside — as any teenager. His environment and story reflect some the experiences and comic books Blokhedz creators and twin brothers Mark and Mike Davis shared in their formative years.

"In many ways, Blokhedz is like a return to some of the Saturday morning cartoons and comic books — the mythology — that we used to enjoy," said Mark Davis. "We just thought that kids today should have something like that."

The Pioneering, Nonpolitical Black Panther

The first African-American superhero in comics can be traced back to newspapers in the 1940s, when Will Eisner introduced the Spirit and his young, black, balloon-lipped sidekick Ebony White. But in comic books, the first mainstream black superhero emerged when Black Panther appeared in Marvel's Fantastic Four No. 52, four years after Spider-Man's debut.

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